J-Magazine Day in the Life of Jean Kittrell Article, August 1983



J-Magazine Day in the Life of Jean Kittrell Article, August 1983


Kittrell, Jean


Article written by Sonja Kershaw for J-Magazine about Jean Kittrell's life as an English professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville by day and jazz pianist and vocalist in St. Louis by night. The article takes readers through a typical day of Kittrell in 1983 as well as her background and family life. Article is printed on pages 10 and 11 of the August 1983 issue of J-Magazine, a former publication of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.


Kershaw, Sonja


Southern Illinois University Edwardsville




Jean Kittrell Digital Collection








A Day In The Life Of: Jean Kittrell
Watch out! Jean moves to a fast jazz note
Story and photographs by Sonja Kershaw
Spending even a few hours with Jean Kittrell gives insight into a life lived fully and well. Talking to her reveals a genuine person who experiences joy and sorrow with the intensity of the fully-alive. Recording a day in her life means to become completely overwhelmed by the accomplishments of her 24 hours - and her 55 years.
Kittrell has worn many and vastly different hats in her life-time - those of a housewife, mother, restaurant manager, grade-school teacher, secretary, doctor of philosophy, English professor, chairperson of the English department at SIUE, jazz pianist, nightclub singer - and some of them still hanging on her hat rack today.
"My day begins anywhere between 5 and 6:30 a.m.," she says, "depending on how late I stayed up the night before. And first of all, I do my exercises."
Evidences of the seriousness of her exercise program are all over the living room of her small, artfully remodeled home in a secluded, wooded section of Edwardsville. A Schwin exercise bicycle with a reading stand holding the current Atlantic magazine stands opposite the piano. Barbells - a three-pound set and a six-pound set - are scattered over the soft white rug. One is used as a door-stop. The physical fitness manual of the U.S. Airforce on the cocktail table is open to her favorite exercises.
"I do all of that every morning," she say and demonstrates 'till she is out of breath.
"And I jog, too. All around the rooms. And the table. And in place right here. Still in my pajamas." She throws the phrase over her shoulder while doing a combination jog and goose-step on her "track" of three interlocking rooms.
Then she has breakfast, a cup of coffee and a soft-boiled egg and toast. ("Always a soft-boiled egg.") She fills her thermos with coffee to take to the office - she hardly ever has lunch - and leaves for SIUE. By 8 a.m., she enters the office of the English department on the third floor of the Peck building. Her office, past that of the two secretaries, affords a beautiful view of the campus, but Kittrell rarely has time to glance out the large corner windows that are graced by plants.
"Sometimes I'm finished by 5 p.m., but quite often I'm still here at 8 or 9 or 10, and sometimes even 11," she says and smiles. "And sometimes on the weekends, too."
Besides the duties of the position of chairperson for the English department, to which she was recently appointed for one year, then elected for an additional three-year term, she has taught four English classes in the last three quarters.
"My life usually goes in 10-year cycles. I taught at Carbondale for 10 years. Another 10 years here. After four years of this, who knows..." She shrugs her shoulders and smiles in happy anticipation.
At least twice a week throughout the year and three times in the summer, Kittrell leaves her office on time. Between 5 and 7 p.m., she changes from her business suit to casual slacks and a loose shirt
her pulled-back hair now relaxes in ringlets around her pleasant, chubby face. Barefoot and without her wire-rimmed glasses, she looks like a suburban housewife. A glance at her mail - no letter today from daughter Camille - and she fixes a quick dinner.
"I love Greek food," Kittrell says. "When I have time, I fix chicken with olives. It's good and quick to make for a bunch of people."
Today, Thursday, she has barely enough time to change into what she calls her "fringe" before leaving her house at 7 p.m. At 8 p.m., she sits at the piano on the riverboat-restaurant, the Robert E. Lee, which is anchored on the Mississippi at the foot of the Arch. She plays there with three different groups two nights a week throughtout the year, three nights in the summer, from 8 p.m. until midnight, and Saturdays until 1 a.m.
Today, the Combo is rounded out by Bill Houston, who quietly concentrates on the solid sounds of his bass guitar, and John Becker with his banjo, who tosses his charm alternately at his listeners and at Kittrell, occasionally bantering duets or verbal asides. Becker and Houston are both in their 60's.
The sound is jazz, and sometimes a little bit blues. The songs are nostalgic or barber shop melodies.
"Second-hand Rose. They call me second-hand Rose," Kittrell belts. Her fingers, trained singe age five in classical music, fly assuredly over the keys of the piano.
"I'm wearing second-hand clothes," she continues the song. Her dress tonight - golden, cascading fringes hugging her ample curves, the skirt split all the way up to the piano bench - is definitely not second-hand. ("When time allowed, I used to make my own costumes.") The fringes dance with every movement.
Mainly Kittrell smiles. It is not a "show-biz" smile. Her eyes smile. The smile comes from within. She smiles because she enjoys herself, her music, the people, the atmosphere.
"I just love the river and the boats coming by," Kittrell says.
In private life, on her private stage, her smile is the dominant feature, too. Her smiles flashes in SIUE meetings, in classes, in the National grocery store, or at Jack's Phillips 66 gas station. She smiles at life and people because
Jean Kittrell loves life and people.
It is impossible to spend a day with Jean Kittrell without getting a glimpse into her eventful past. The story of the successful "golden girl" is a surface view
Jean has depth of character. She has worked hard to achieve her academic success. She survived two divorces, the deaths of her parents and brother and the suicide of one of her daughters, committed after four years of mental illness. She neither shuns these subjects nor dwells on their tragic aspects.
"My brother was killed in a B-17 over Germany. It just about destroyed my parents. He was such a perfect son for my father. He wanted to step into the family business. He was good with figures, handsome. He had just about everything going for him."
She paused in memory, then continued.
"But, you know, I really admired my parents after that. They could have turned to me. They could have smothered me with protectiveness. They didn't do that.
"My mother spent the last four years of her life with me. Came up from Alabama. Brought a lot of her bushes and plants from the old place. See, they are still growing here. She stayed the first year with me, then three years in the house bought next door. She made me a quilt."
Jean leads the way into what she calls her "family room." It is a bedroom. The quilt is spread on the brass bed. Pictures of her daughters and her family, her own baby pictures, some in gilt frames and the stiff poses of yester-year's photography, grace the walls.
"The patches are from her clothes, from my father's shirts. See, here is a label still from his vest lining." Jean's hands lovingly stroke the material.
"I wish I had known at the time what she was doing," Jean said. "She left me a legacy. It took her about the whole year before she had her heart-attack."
She talks only of her first husband, with whom she said she had "12 years of good married life." He introduced her to jazz.
"I was married for seven years before I even knew he played the horn," she said. He was a university professor with a PhD in economics.
"When he wanted to play in public, I said, 'Okay, I'll play with you 'till you find a professional accompanist.'" She broke into laughter. Her only experience in vocal music had been in church, where she sang solos and in the choir.
:We had some good times with our music. The three-week engagement in Duesseldorf, Germany, was marvelous. The German people in 1959 were so much more receptive to jazz than Americans at that time.
She turns to look at some pictures her daughter Rebecca painted. "Flowers. They look Japanese, don't they? I remember Monther's Day. Rebecca had put flowers forme in every room of the house. The whole house. Filled with flowers." She spreads her arms to embrace house and memory. Her eyes sparkle, moist with emotion.
"She had not bought them," she continues with a wide smile. "She picked them up behind the nursery where they put the discards that aren't quite good enough to sell anymore. They were still good flowers, you understand, just not good enough to sell. Now, that is love. Not a name signed under a bought card. The whole house full of flowers! It was lovely."
Jean does not put the grief over Rebecca's mental illness and suicide into words.
"People don't know about mental illness. I didn't either, before. They think it's something you can control. They think, 'Snap out of it!' 'Why can't you cope?'"
Taking the example that her parents set after her brother's death to heart, Jean does not cling to her daughter Camille, the only family she has left. Camille, now 27, is a journalist and film critic for the Sojourner, a quarterly magazine in Boston. Despite the distance, they are very close and meet several times a year
next month for a vacation in Florida.
"After Camille had worked so hard at Washington University - she made Phi Beta Kappa while working 20 hours a week in addition to her studying - she thought she needed to rest her braine for awhile. So she worked as a waitress for a year. She found out she needed her brain as a waitress, too."
Jean shook her head in amusement and laughed. "Well, she saved her money," she continued, "and went on a journey around the world. She spent $4,000 in nine months for transportation, food and board. She made friends everywhere and stayed with them for awhile, then moved on. She really loved Thailand. It must be beautiful. In Jamaica she lived off the land for three months. Climbed trees. For coconuts, you know. There were other young people, in fact, an international set, living off the land in the same way.
"She still does adventurous things. Her is her latest picture. I would've had a fit if I had known." The snapshot shows a tiny spread-eagled figure floating among the clouds from a colorful parachute.
The love which Rebecca expressed with a houseful of flowers on Monther's Day comes from Camille in a college essay that fell out of her writing portfolio.
"You may read it," Jean says, "but don't quote from it."
The essay was written for a school writing assignment. It described Jean in a character profile. Despite its factual, unemotional journalistic style, it is in content a love poem. Only near the end, when describing Jean's strength at the funeral of Camille's sister, does the author admit that "Jean" is her mother.
"I believe some people are born lucky," Jean says. "I was lucky. Am lucky. Lucky to have been born into a warm family. Lucky to have had so much love."
She glances at a few lines of Camille's essay, and her eyes brim.
"I haven't read that in awhile."
She blinks.
"I told you how lucky I am.
"Now you see."

Original Format

Newspaper Article


Kershaw, Sonja, “J-Magazine Day in the Life of Jean Kittrell Article, August 1983,” Digital Exhibits, accessed June 20, 2024, https://digitallis.isg.siue.edu/items/show/2816.

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